Susan Buck-Morss: A Commonist Ethics

previous page |  next page


What gives? Walls fall, tyrants fall, an African‐American, immigrant’s son, is elected President of the United States. But what goes on? What continues through all these transformations? Marxists will tell you, the global capitalist system, and the answer is not wrong. When Warren Buffett proclaims (speaking the truth from power): “there’s class warfare alright, and we are winning,” he could have added, worldwide. In a meeting like ours today, where we are considering a new political beginning, the 600‐ pound gorilla in the room is radical politics’ past, its debt to Marx’s analysis of capital that dealt intensely with economic inequality, outlining a theory of global exploitation of land and labor, a dialectical history of class struggle, and a rationale for the necessity of political revolution in order for human society to move forward.

Never, in my lifetime, has the Marxist critique of capital and its global dynamics seemed more accurate. And never has it seemed more wrong to go back to Marxism in its historical forms. At least through the 1960s, Marxist theory was the lingua franca of activists globally, no matter how much they disagreed on the proper interpretation (Soviet, Trotskyist, Maoist, humanist). The fall of the Soviet Union and the adoption of capitalist elements by the Republic of China dealt a fatal blow to this commonality. At the same time, Marxist theory could not withstand the scrutiny of feminist, post‐ colonial, critical race theorists, and others who extended the meaning of oppression and exploitation far beyond what happens on the factory floor. In its definition of human universality, Marxism was provincial at best. And its logic, often determinist, was firmly lodged in a theory of historical stages that has been shown to be simply inaccurate ‐ by Samir Amin, Janet Abu‐Lughod, and Dipesh Chakrabarty, to name a few.

And the idea of the revolutionary proletariat? Is the working class as political vanguard still the relevant organizational form? Official unions – not all of them, but too many and too often – have acted as groups that do not rise above economist concerns. Clearly, labor protests continue to matter in innovative ways. From Suez, Egypt, where non‐official unions played a crucial role in empowering the Tahrir activist by their own power to block the Suez Canal, to Xintang, China, where migrant workers took to the streets to protest against being denied access to basic citizen rights, to Madison Wisconsin, where the very right to collective bargaining was under attack, to the Workers Councils and other labor groups that have come to Occupy Wall Street in support, labor organizing remains a crucially important location of struggle.27 But not only are most jobs in most places in the world today non‐union. The reasons Marx argued for the pivotal importance of the organized working class may no longer hold. The wage rate, as “variable capital,” was supposed to be the part of the cost equation in the production process that lent itself to downward pressure (as opposed to the fixed capital of machines), but as we have seen, it functions by a different logic when productivity eliminates jobs completely. The International Labor Organization estimates that the number of unemployed workers worldwide is 200 million.28 A January 2011 Gallop poll puts world unemployment at 7% of the workforce.29 The young generation is particularly hard‐hit. Unemployed youth today, worldwide, fears less the status of an economically necessary, labor reserve army, than being economically unnecessary, a superfluous population of permanently excluded, expendable human beings. And that is a really frightening (but at the same time, dialectically powerful30) answer to the question: What’s new?

As the mega‐cities of the globe make evident, massive proletarianization of the workforce has indeed taken place. But factories have left the cities and moved to enclaves. Striking is the fact that the migrant workforces they employ have shown themselves to be remarkably capable of collective action, despite their precarious position and despite ethnic and linguistic differences.31 And yet, their own cosmopolitan consciousness remains far in advance of what has been achieved by nationally organized, political parties.

Where is the revolutionary class? This may be the wrong question to ask. Perhaps neither category – neither revolution nor class – has the necessary traction in our time. First: is societal transformation any longer about revolution in the classical– modern sense? It has long been my suspicion that the Iranian Revolution of 1979 was the last in a long tradition that has run its course, whether in pro‐nationalist, anti‐ colonial, Marxist, or theocratic form. Khoumeini’s political institution of sovereign power, Wilayat al‐Faqih, was a personal invention, foreign not only to Western traditions, but to Sunni Islam and even Shi’ite political thought. And yet, his triumph in a violent civil war has affinities with the French Revolutionary prototype in many of its distinguishing characteristics: prolonged fratricide, tens of thousands of political executions, including the ritualistic beheadings of political enemies before the public, a trajectory of increasing radicalism, a reign of virtue, a Thermidorian reaction of authoritarian centralization, and, finally, a Girondist foreign policy of revolutionary expansion. But if you can spread revolution by twittering your triumph to the world, why choose the path of a foreign invasion?

Today, the videotaped beheadings of random victims does not have the same effect as regicide on the crowd of citizens at the Place de la Révolution. It is not felt by the global public as justified revenge. As is the case with the bombing of civilians, the bulldozing of houses, and the torturing and humiliation of prisoners, it is perceived as inhuman and wrong. Abstraction here works dialectically: without the legitimating language of the perpetrators, without the contextual pre‐given meanings, the viewing of violence toward the powerless evokes an affective, visceral reaction from global observers who, precisely because the scene is taken out of context, respond concretely, and with empathy. Fratricide, the bloody struggle of civil war as the means of social transformation, is short sighted, as the truth and reconcilliation process that must follow proves enormously difficult. And as Thermedorian Reactions make clear, it is far easier to smash the old order than to construct the new.

So much for violent revolution. But are we really done with class? The 100 pound gorilla is still with us, the fact that In this global capitalist world, virtually across the board geo‐politically, the rich keep getting rich and the poor poorer – and those in power, far from protesting, tell us that this system needs greater, special protection, far greater than that given to the citizens themselves. Free markets (uncontrolled capitalist accumulation) and free societies (democracies Western style) have joined hands, and the end product is global oligarchy. The so‐called community of nations protects a global system of enclosures, which works to appropriate every use value that can be turned into a profit‐making endeavor. Nothing – not schools, not prisons, not human genes, not wild plants, not the national army, not foreign governments – nothing is exempt from this process of privatization.

So, there is class warfare being waged, from the top down. But is there class war? Only if the rest of the world, the 99% of us, responds in kind. (Even Warren Buffett is not happy with the role he is supposed to play). I want to oppose the idea that the whole point of politics is to name the enemy (Schmitt’s friend/enemy distinction), and to structure one’s political organizing in an instrumental way in order to defeat that enemy.

Agonistic politics is a mutually dependent social relationship. Both sides must play the game. Perhaps nothing would appeal to those believing that the bad old is better than the possibility of the new being good, than if this struggle were to be defined as class war. Perhaps nothing would make the authorities more relieved than if Occupy Wall Street became a violent movement, because the state can then justify using police violence to put it down. But the vast majority, the 99%, has the force they need in sheer numbers, and does not require armed struggle to prove its point. And that point is: the system upon which we depend, the system that is incorporating more and more of our world, is not only out of control. It is punishing, irrational, and immoral – in Badiou’s words, brutal and barbaric.

A world community of democratic and sovereign nation‐states was supposed to be the end of history, not the end of humanity. But what are we to make of our world, based on absurd contradictions, in which the democratically elected parliament of Greece taxes the people into destitution in order to save the nation? Or the nation of Iraq is liberated by the destruction of its infrastructure and death or displacement of 20% of the population? The logic has indeed something fundamental in common with that of the Cold War, when the capacity to destroy life on the planet was the gold standard of military security, and when post‐colonial villages in Vietnam were bombed into oblivion in order to save their inhabitants from communism.

This is acceptable social behavior, and it’s crazy! A commonist ethics requires us to say so. The free choice of citizen voters is not freedom, and it is not a choice.32 The new tautology: Our subjection to the capitalist ethic produces the objectivized spirit of capitalism, which reproduces the capitalist ethic, in an eternal return of the same.

previous page |  next page

27 Striking is the consciousness of those in power that the trans‐local protests of 2011 are connected. “Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, a rising star in the Republican Party, on Thursday equated the protests against his home‐state Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) budget plan to the world‐ historic demonstrations in Egypt that last week led to the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. ‘He’s getting riots. It’s like Cairo’s moved to Madison these days,’ Ryan said on MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe’ (downloaded October 9:‐labor‐protests‐like‐cairo‐gops‐paul‐ryan‐exclaims/). In the case of Xintang: “The security clampdown this year is also generally attributed to the protests roiling the Middle East and North Africa, which Chinese authorities don’t want to see imitated in their country” (downloaded October 9:‐protests.html). For the significance of the unofficial Suez unions in Egypt’s spring, see “Striking Suez Unions fuel the Uprising after 10 Years of Labor Organizing,” see (downloaded October 22, 2011):
28 See the UN News Story on unemployment (downloaded October 22, 2011):
29 This according to the LA Times, January 19, 2011 (downloaded October 22, 2011):‐unemployment‐is‐about‐7‐new‐gallup‐survey‐finds.html
30 Zizek is absolutely correct in pointing this out: “As this logic reaches its extreme, would it not be reasonable to bring it to its self‐negation: is not a system which renders 80 percent of people irrelevant and useless itself irrelevant and of no use?” ) Slavoj Zizek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce [London: Verso, 2009]), p. 103.
31 See Paul Apostolidis, Breaks in the Chain: What Immigrant Workers Can Teach America about Democracy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).